A city’s business district is about more than business.
Thursday, February 15, 2007
The night after the big fire, downtown was alive. The streets were swarming, the restaurants were booked solid, the bars and nightclubs were packed and roaring. How bizarre that the disaster coincided with the Pro-Am, always one of Monterey’s biggest weekends.
I spent that Friday night walking around downtown, talking to locals and visitors. It wasn’t primarily intended as a reporting excursion—to tell the truth, my sweetheart was out of town and I was at loose ends, so I decided to see who was out and about—I was bar-hopping.
I had just finished editing this week’s cover story, and so I was thinking about the city and the mayor’s ambitious plans for remaking downtown. And of course I was thinking about the impact of the fire—it was hard not to, what with most of Alvarado closed and fenced off. And so I was interviewing everyone I ran into, with a pint in hand.
I have spent quite a few evenings doing something like this, walking around downtown, talking to strangers. It often turns into a rewarding little adventure. There’s something about walking into a place, grabbing a seat at the bar, and striking up a conversation with whoever happens to be sitting next to you—you get to meet people you wouldn’t know otherwise, hear their stories, talk politics or sports or family. This is one of the small pleasures of city living.
Everyone seemed to get the fact that all of us lost something when that building burned.
Downtown Monterey is a particularly fun place to do this, partly because people come here from all over the world. I spent an evening at the Crown and Anchor a couple of years ago with two Turkish soldiers who were studying at DLI; my understanding of Turkey’s bid to join the European Union was greatly deepened that night. At Alfredo’s I once had a drink with a British engineer who was visiting to work on the power plant in Moss Landing—that was an education, although I must admit I have forgotten the details. During Car Week a few years back, I watched a ballgame at Montrio with a guy from Munich; he knew more interesting facts about Porsches, Audis and Volkswagens than anyone I’ve ever met (which is remarkable only because I spent five years of my life working as an auto mechanic at shops specializing in German cars).
Of course the point of bar-hopping is not to learn about politics or power plants or cars, but I believe my life was happily enriched by these experiences, as it has been by dozens like them. Stuff like this makes me glad to be here, makes me glad to be alive. I’d bet a lot of the people who filled the streets and bars and restaurants last weekend feel the same way.
In every good city, that’s what going downtown is all about—experiencing the random connections that happen in a place where people are drawn to congregate. It happens at the Farmers Market every week, where shoppers chat in line with their neighbors and then hand their money to the person who harvested their lettuce. It happens at Dick Brunn’s men’s store every day, as it does at every café and restaurant and shop downtown.
What with the fire, and with the mayor’s ambitious plans rattling around in my head, I was thinking about this stuff as I walked around last Friday, and feeling appreciative.
• • •
People were talking about the fire. All of them spoke almost as though they were talking about a personal tragedy. They expressed sympathy for the business owners whose livelihoods had been wiped out, sadness that a cool old building had been destroyed, and also something deeper. Everyone seemed to get the fact that all of us lost something when that building burned.
In his book The City and the Good Life, the communitarian writer Dan Kemmis explains why we should all value bars like the Mucky Duck and clothing stores like This or Die—both of which now lie in ashes along with 20 other local businesses:
“What makes a city civilized is something that is also absolutely fundamental to citizenship: in both instances, the basic feature is the human element. In the case of citizenship, this facet will make its claim most clearly if we allow it to appear, not where we might expect to find it, in governmental institutions, or in theories or documents, but in the most unassumingly human settings.”
I hope our local government and the community at large will do what it can to help the business owners who were burned out last week. And I’m glad that Chuck Della Sala, Monterey’s new mayor, has a plan for revitalizing downtown. A healthy downtown business district encourages a healthy community.
By the same token, I’m disappointed to read (see story, pg. 12) that Marina’s elected officials are so sanguine about the idea of a super-sized Wal-Mart coming to town. Nobody ever had a life-enriching experience at Wal-Mart.